Hey, did you hear about the Millennials?
“Suddenly, as you may have noticed, Millennials are everywhere.” That’s how the New York Times’ Sam Tanenhaus began his look at the Millennial Generation, which ran in the paper of record last weekend, published, at least in web form, with the strange headline “Generation Nice: The Millennials Are Generation Nice.”
I generally enjoy Tanenhaus’ work, but this is not his finest piece. Perhaps it’s because there’s not a cliche he doesn’t mine. It also doesn’t help that we have a nearly 60-year-old writer, opining about Kids These Days, the sort of combination that can really only end in tears. Remember Tom Wolfe’s college novel?
Not that this group of people born after 1980 and before 2000 — a giant cohort now estimated to number at least 80 million Americans, more than the baby boom generation — was ever invisible. What’s changed is their status. Coddled and helicoptered, catered to by 24-hour TV cable networks, fussed over by marketers and college recruiters, dissected by psychologists, demographers and trend-spotters, the millennial generation has come fully into its own.
Yes, they’ve all been coddled and helicoptered. All 80 million of them. Whether they’re rich or poor, 34 now, or 14.
There are two things I hate about this sort of thinking: It’s unbelievably stupid to paint an entire generation of millions of people with a single broad brush. It was stupid when they did it with the Greatest Generation, dumber still with the Boomers, and not any wiser when it came to Generation X. Although you really have to hand it to the World War II people- they’re the final generation of Americans that doesn’t have an overarching reputation for general awfulness.
And that’s the other thing I despise about this grand orgy of all-generation judgment: Resentment of a younger generation by their older counterparts ALWAYS happens. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries.
Have a problem with young people today, and their clothes or music or language or technology use or politics or sexual behavior or dance moves? Guess what- when you were young, older people felt that way about you, and everyone in your age group. They thought you were lazy, entitled, and obsessed with things that were stupid. And at some point years earlier, people probably thought that about your parents, too.
One of the first things I vowed, when I reached my 30s and became a father, was to never ever be that guy who complains about Kids These Days.
And besides, a lot of the things people determine about Millennials have a lot more to do with changes in culture and society than anything they’ve actually done. Recent grads in their early 20s living at home longer? Might have something to do with the crash of the global economy and sluggish job market. The only thing preventing the children of 1985 from watching hundreds of TV channels was that they weren’t offered yet. And if smartphones had existed in the early ’90s, Gen Xers would have used Tinder and taken selfies, too.
The Tanenhaus piece goes in a different direction- it actually praises the Millennials for their empathy. Citing poll data, they’re more likely to volunteer, to be vegetarians, to be multicultural, to be generally friendly and empathetic people.
And that’s great. But once again- the Millennial generation is 80 million people, of all races, creeds and socioeconomic levels. How can we possibly make judgments about that many people?
Tanenhaus namechecks well, everything that’s relevant today. The Kardashians. Lena Dunham. Occupy Wall Street. Facebook. Selfies. Twitter. And LeBron James:
Exhibit A may be LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar who in July announced that he would be going back to rust-belt Cleveland after four glamorous years in Miami, becoming, at age 29, one of America’s wealthiest boomerang children.
Yea, I don’t think LeBron’s story is so representative of his generation. For one thing, he’s probably not going to be moving back in with his parents.
I’m not a Millennial, as I just turned 36; my preschool-aged children are much younger than the Milliennial cutoff, and I can only imagine the things people will say about their generation. I have friends, colleagues and family members who are the Millennials, though, and… they’re all kinds of people, with all kinds of interests. Sticking them all into one humongous super-category is just plain nonsense. So stop it with this “The Millennials” crap. They’re not all alike.
In the meantime, this morning, in the New York Times… “Marketers Are Sizing Up the Millennials.” Maybe that’s what this is really about…